Book Review: What We Know About Climate Change

What We Know About Climate Change

What We Know About Climate Change, 2nd Edition
by Kerry Emanuel
The MIT Press, 2012.
93 pages (Kindle)


In this second edition of What We Know About Climate Change, Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science at MIT, brings the climate controversy down to earth.

Emanuel is a sort of unicorn among climate scientists; he is a Ronald Reagan-loving Republican. As he sees it though, being Republican shouldn’t be synonymous with being anti-science.

The Republican Party has a respectable track record in protecting the environment, from Abraham Lincoln’s deeding of Yosemite Valley to California, to Richard Nixon’s establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and signing of the Clean Air Act, to Ronald Reagan’s strong advocacy of the Montreal Protocol, which sought to protect the ozone layer, and George H. W. Bush’s support of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the historic 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Emanuel sees the issue of climate science as having a close tie to traditional Republican values. Few conservatives, he writes, “can be happy about our current dependence on foreign oil,” or “be comfortable with taxpayer subsidies of fossil fuels or the absorption of coal externalities into the price of health care.” Nevertheless, things are not likely to change so as long as voters “continue to elect scientific illiterates such as James Inhofe.” Inhofe believes that climate change is the “greatest hoax” ever perpetrated on the American people.

What We Know About Climate Change is ultimately not a polemical volume though, nor is it designed as a defense against denialists. It’s far too slim for that ambitious of a project and a very approachable read. What Emanuel does in this book is to give the reader an accessible overview of climate science. He shows where there is a consensus and why, where there are some disagreements, and where further work is needed.

“Certain findings are not in dispute,” says Emanuel. For example, “Atmospheric concentrations of key greenhouse gases— carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide— are increasing, driven by the burning of fossil fuels and biomass. Carbon dioxide has increased from its pre-industrial level of about 280 parts per million to about 396 parts per million today, an increase of about 40 percent.”

“Sea level has risen by about four inches over the past 60 years,” he adds, “A little more than an inch of this rise occurred during the past decade.”

He lays out the three major categories for handling the issue of climate change (including their pros and cons) as mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering—the first he sees as having “the most straightforward effect on climate because it attacks the source of the problem.”

What I appreciated about the volume was its overall straight-forwardness. He lets the reader in on how scientists approach the work of science, explaining the peer-review process and why it is necessary. “Science proceeds by continually testing and discarding or refining hypotheses, a process greatly aided by the naturally skeptical disposition of scientists…Partisanship— whatever its source— is likely to be detected by our colleagues and hurt our credibility, the true stock of the trade.”

Now if only the Republican party could have its own climate change and start listening to individuals like Kerry Emanuel, then there might be a chance that our future grandchildren will have less of our mess to pick up.


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